Balancing the Butcher with the Boy: The Butcher Boy, a Black Comedy

18 March 2012

Neil Jordan’s 1997 film The Butcher Boy is one of those rare films in which content is in opposition with construct.  Put another way, The Butcher Boy is a black comedy.  This film confronts serious issues, such as death, depression, mental disorders, homicide, child molestation, alcoholism, bullying, suicide, child neglect, political unrest, and warfare, yet, as a black comedy, its confrontation lacks the seriousness these hard-hitting topics are most often handled with.

However, just because black comedies don’t treat their subject matter with the same seriousness or gravity a drama would, it does not mean black comedies are an easy genre of film to pull-off; in fact, the black comedy is, perhaps, the hardest style of film to make.  It is incredibly difficult to present hard-hitting subject matter as light-hearted to an audience in a way the viewers will understand and accept.  In addition, the audience must be entertained by the film and invested in the plot and/or characters.  If the black comedy treats the subject matter too flippantly the audience will resent it, and if the film gets too serious the audience will misunderstand it.  Truly, black comedies are a delicate genre to work in, and Neil Jordan seemed to know this when preparing The Butcher Boy.

Jordan’s film is an adaptation of a 1992 novel, of the same title, written by Pat McCabe, and Jordan collaborated with McCabe to write the film’s screenplay.  In fact, the screenplay went through three complete drafts before Jordan felt satisfied the film’s text (a.k.a. the script) could support the particular type of film he intended on making.  This indicates Jordan knew he was preparing to climb a slippery slope with The Butcher Boy and he was not committed to attempt such a feat until he had a script he felt was viable.  Jordan, an already established director at the time, seemed to realize the humor at work in The Butcher Boy as a novel would not necessarily translate to screen audiences, thus the dark yet witty tone of the novel must be adapted for the screen using cinematic devices; Jordan’s challenge as director was to convey the same dark and witty tone for his visual audience as McCabe did with his literary audience.  Ultimately, it is tone that is foundational to a black comedy’s success or failure, and The Butcher Boy’s grim narrative is presented with clever cinematics, namely a wise use of Dutch angles and upbeat, sarcastic musical accompaniment, that establish a consistent and humorous tone, making Jordan’s film a successful black comedy.

As a snapshot of the plot, The Butcher Boy is the story of Francie Brady (Eammon Owens, a pre-adolescent boy growing up during the late 1950s in Clones, Ireland.  Like many boys, Francie’s imagination is full of “cowboys and Indians,” alien creatures from sci-fi television, and comic book superheroes.  However, unlike most boys, Francie has schizophrenia, brought out by a severely troubled home-life.  Francie’s distorts reality in order to survive it, which becomes increasingly problematic when his behaviors turn brutally violent, particularly for Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw).

Jordan frequently uses Dutch angles in The Butcher Boy, which play a large role in setting the appropriate comedic tone for the film.  Typically, a Dutch angle tilts the camera so the shot is filmed from an unnatural, slanted point of view, thus a Dutch angle conveys to the audience a sense of turmoil.  True, filming Francie’s wild behavior through Dutch angles reinforces Francie is out of control, and his actions are wrecking havoc on his town, its residents, and others he encounters on his adventures.  Also true, these tilted angles remind the audience it is not just Francie who is the problem; Jordan film’s other characters and sets in Dutch angles to remind views the world around Francie, which is entirely out of his control, is also in turmoil. Yet, these standard uses of Dutch angles are, likely, not the driving force behind Jordan’s decision to employ tilted shots in The Butcher Boy.

Perhaps most importantly, Jordan uses these Dutch angles to ease the audience’s mind when exploring the narrative’s dark content, all the while supporting the film’s comedic overtone.  These tilted angles are unnatural and therefore unrealistic.  Jordan captures many of the film’s darkest moments in Dutch angles to emphasize their fictional, surreal quality.  In making the film’s visual presentation far removed from reality the audience is more willing to accept Jordan’s exploration into hard-hitting topics.  Also, the audience is more likely to find humor in Francie’s quick-witted remarks and cheeky expressions when viewers are not seeing him from a realistic perspective.

Moreover, because Francie is so interested in comic books, Dutch angles are a clever mirror for the slanted angles cartoonists use in comic strips.  Jordan presents his shots as a cartoonist may present a comic strip.  Interpreting Jordan’s use of Dutch angles as, in part, a pull on comic strips is supported by the film’s opening credits which are series of red-washed comics.  Suggesting the film is a moving comic, of sorts, further suspends the audience from reality and supports an absurd and/or humorous tone in the film.

The Green Lantern comic demonstrating the Dutch-like angle used in comics.

Additionally, during the opening comic sequence of The Butcher Boy, an instrumental version of the song “Mack the Knife” accompanies the comics.  Like the Dutch angles, much of the music in The Butcher Boy helps maintain the film’s tone, particularly “Mack the Knife,” which is used repeatedly.  The song is originally from The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay, written in the early 18th century.  Gay’s opera is a satire about the class system and politics of his time, which already sounds very familiar to The Butcher Boy.  Macheath, the character from the song’s lyrics, is of the “low-class” in Gay’s opera and also cheats, steals, and lies but never becomes violent.  As time went on, “Mack the Knife” got a makeover, most notably after Bobby Darin recorded the popular version of the song in the 1950s, which transformed the character of Macheath into a suave ladies’ man, who happens to be a serial killer.

The song’s repeated placement in the film adds sarcasm, wit, and irony to The Butcher Boy. The first time this song is heard in the opening sequence provides an example for the audience of the type of humor and entertainment Jordan’s film aims to achieve.  In the 1950s, Bobby Darin recorded this song about a serial killer that was an instant smash and still remains an icon song of its era.  The content may be questionable, but the arrangement and beat of the song make it pleasurable to listen to.  That’s exactly what The Butcher Boy aims for; difficult subject matter, but witty and entertaining to watch.

Also, the film never uses the song’s lyrics, but many of the lines have slipped into our consciousness and audience members cannot help but to think them, or even sing them,  when the instrumental is played.  And, many of those lyrics are highly appropriate for The Butcher Boy.  For example, the song repeats “…old Mackey’s back in town,” which connects with Francie in the film.  First as a runaway, then reform school, next the garage, and finally the hospital and prison, Francie, like Mack, keeps leaving town and coming back.  And, as the song warns, everyone should “look out” each time Francie gets back to town.

The song, as a popular tune of yesteryear, not only lends credibility to The Butcher Boy, by demonstrating that being entertained by morbid and off-color subject matter is nothing new and can be wildly successful, it also supports the tone of Jordan’s black comedy.  “Mack the Knife” and other songs used throughout the film are upbeat and catchy in addition to being witty, sarcastic, and, at times, out-right biting.  In this way, the songs are a balance for the film’s darker content, making the musical accompaniment a necessary part of maintaining tone.

Quality black comedies are not as easy to find.  In a way, black comedies are a bit like horror films; a small percentage of what gets made is truly remarkable and the rest is useless.  Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy finds itself in that small, remarkable percentage.  Stemming from an already successful novel, this film translated well onto the screen in large part due to thorough and consistent cinematics, namely the ones mentioned in this piece as well as a host of others, that all work together to create an even consistent tone for The Butcher Boy.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 18/03/2012.

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